I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in college, but in a way, I’ve always been telling stories.
For me, it began with song lyrics, and my first memory of writing them comes from when I was at the ever-mature age of seven. A friend was sleeping over, and we stayed up really late crafting the choruses to cheesy pop songs about unrequited love—which of course, neither of us had ever experienced. Suffice it to say we had active imaginations. We wrote about heartbreaks, and about revenge. We wrote about how we’d be so much better off on our own.
(I would not even kiss a boy for another six years.)
Later, when I entered high school and learned to play guitar, I still wrote about unrequited love—but this time I set those words to music, and this time I knew the experience firsthand. I wrote songs because I didn’t know how else to process my feelings, and telling my stories became a productive way to work through the ache.
But I didn’t just magically know how to do this. Instead, I looked directly to the music I loved at the time, all those stories written by all those strangers that somehow always felt like they existed solely for me.
Because of this, music always seemed more powerful to me as a teenager than any other type of art. Perhaps it was because of the first person nature of most songs, the singer crooning about an “I” experience that I could so easily step into. Or, maybe it was because of the often-referenced “you”—usually a love interest onto which I could project my own desire and longing.
Or perhaps it was even more simple, a visceral reaction to the raw nature of so many lyrics, poetic verses that seemed to have been ripped straight out of my chest, validating the overwhelming flood of my feelings, as though they were telling a story about the darkest shadows of my own bleeding heart.
That’s the part that really affected me: the way that certain songs felt so intimate.
The irony, of course, is that music is inherently a public and shared experience. Concerts today can host tens of thousands of people, and for so many centuries, without headphones and iPods, music was usually communal. And yet, there is something so private about the way we experience it, about the act of listening, and how the words and the swell of instruments can resonate deep down in our guts. Music can thread through our subconscious mind and weave together hidden emotions and memories. Music can be therapeutic, or energizing, or devastating.
Even now, well over a decade later, the songs and albums I loved in my teens are still my favorites. They’re the ones that helped me learn how to tell my own stories, helped me understand so many strange new emotions—some good and some almost unbearable. Certain songs can still transport me back to particular places and feelings, like driving down an empty freeway at night with my best friend, or sitting next to a boy I liked as my heart hammered and our hands inched closer.
It’s these feelings—these specific memories—that I often relied on while writing The Midnights. In this way, my protagonist, Susannah, is a lot like me: a girl who felt so often misunderstood, at times unbearably lonely and out of place. Except when it came to music.
Our teenage years are intrinsically tension-filled, full of wonder and heartbreak, despair and dreams. During that time, so much of the world is being discovered, and yet a vast majority of it is out of our control. But even in those darkest moments, when everything feels like it’s careening, it can make an enormous difference to know that someone else out there feels the exact same way you do. Even if that someone is a stranger. Maybe because that someone is a stranger.
Hopefully, it will help you see that you’re not so alone after all.